Sunday, June 28, 2009

Baltimore Kinetic Sculpture Race 2009

BALTIMORE, MD. - While much of the world was keeping an eye on the 135th running of the Kentucky Derby, hundreds turned out in Baltimore, Maryland for a race of a different kind. The 11th annual Baltimore Kinetic Sculpture Race is one of the wackiest races on the East coast. Well attended by a friendly and fun loving crowd, the race is advertised as "a race of totally human-powered works of art designed to travel over land, sand, mud and really deep water."

The moving creative sculptures are made by teams from such diverse backgrounds as the the Physics and Sculpture departments of the University of Virginia, Roland Park Elementary School's 8th grade class, and individuals looking to win big. Hosted by the American Visionary Art Museum , this championship race had 33 registered kinetic sculptures by race time.

To win this race the entrants, often called Kinetinauts, because of their fearless artistic and engineering skills, must human-power their creations over a 15 mile course. The course is through downtown Baltimore and includes some interesting obstacles: Kinetinauts must swim their sculptures in the Baltimore Harbor, traverse a sand pit, push through a mud pit and return in one piece.

At the Canton Waterfront the sculptures drive down a ramp into the harbor, where there are plenty of kayaks and safety boats making sure everyone gets out of the water as healthy as they entered. Where land meets water is where the seaworthiness of these sculptures are tested. There are some who sink , some who flip on hitting the water, and some who have trouble getting out and up the ramp. The rules are strict regarding outside help to help push or pull the kinetic sculptures out of the water.

Following some great achievements in the water test, the pilots drive their strange vehicles several blocks to Patterson Park, where an obstacle course is set up. The pilots and crew must drive their vehicle through a sand pit while the crowd cheers. I was amazed how the crowd would open a pathway for the vehicle to race into the pit then close ranks behind it for a better view. No one was run over and the fluidity of the crowd seemed rehearsed. After the sand pit it was on to the mud pit, located on an uphill part of the course, just to add a little challenge. The mud tenders seemed to get the worse part of the dirt, having to shovel the mud back into a nice wet, oozy pile for the next racer. Many made it through with some pushing by their team, some were bogged down. All had fun.

The spectators are as fun to watch, and photograph, as the movable artwork. The crowd is enthusiastic, yelling and encouraging all entrants as they brave the water, sand and mud courses. Many dress for the occasion in colorful and outlandish costumes. If you're in the market for a puppy or dog this is a great place to check out the different breeds. We saw probably a hundred dogs, of all sizes and shapes, enjoying the outing in Patterson Park and along the race course. All were friendly and seemed to enjoy the outing as much as their leash mates.

Returning this year were a number of favorites from previous races: Fifi, the giant pink poodle, Bumpo the Indian elephant, last years' Grand Mediocre East Coast Champion Rat Rod, and the ever popular P.L.A.T.Y.P.U.S. (Personal Long-range All Terrain Yacht Proven Un-Safe). New creations included the Happily Never After, Rocky Horror Picture Shoe and The Oregon Trail, based upon the pilots' favorite childhood computer game.

There are at least 14 awards that are just as much fun as the wild and crazy sculptures. There is the most prestigious honor, the ACE Award, that recognizes a pilot who has "conquered not only the race course, but his machine and himself." This award also entitles the pilot to be addressed as "Most Visionary Pilot", and for people to stand when he or she enters the room. I did say these people were a lot of fun, but not modest. There is the "Next to Last" award to keep the race interesting to the end and the "Golden Flipper" award for the best water crash or flip.

The idea of a Kinetic Sculpture race started with Hobart Brown in 1969 in California. An artist and gallery owner, Hobart reportedly got started with in the Kinetic Sculpture race field when he modified his son's tricycle to a five-wheeled decorated "Pentacycle." He was challenged by another artist to race down Main street on Mother's Day. Other artists joined in the race and each year it grew a little more. Soon the race was the longest human powered sculpture race in the world with a course covering 42 miles from Arcata to Ferndale, California. Hobart went on to help set up Kinetic Sculpture races throughout the United States and Australia. There are about ten races annually, including the Baltimore race that Hobart help setup in 1999.

The Kentucky Derby is billed as, "the most exciting two minutes in sports." The Baltimore Kinetic Sculpture Race takes a bit more than two minutes to finish. It takes about 7 hours and 58 minutes longer than the Derby, so it could be billed as, "the most exciting, creative, and fun-filled race day anywhere."


At the end of the day "Goin Griswold", a takeoff of the Chevy Chase Vacation movie, complete with the mother-in-law on the roof, was the Grand Mediocre East Coast Champion by the Gottwald family of Great Falls, Virginia. "Happily Never After", by the Make Believers team, won the Art Award and was one of my favorites.. Before the race started a giant pumpkin was transformed by the Fairy Godmother into the gothic carriage that wowed the crowd.

The Engineering Award went to "Cheese Racer," designed and engineered by students from Sollers Point Technical High School. "P.L.A.T.Y.P.U.S." by David Hess and his Horkology Foundation took the People's Choice by popular vote. This is a returning entry from last year with a few improvements and style changes. Platypus also holds the record for the largest crew with eight pilots pedaling and a driver.

Going where no man (or woman) has gone before the Speed Award was beamed up to NCC-1701 and the It Cain't team, returning for their fifth year. The Golden Flipper, for capsizing in the harbor went to a wet "Green Racer" crew. "Hot Beef Injection" was cooking food along the way in their chicken leg, spatula and other food costumes. They won The Best Pit Crew Award. Or should it have been the "Best Pit Beef Crew" award?

It's not too early to mark your calendars for next years 12th Annual Kinetic Sculpture Race in Baltimore - May 1, 2010.

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